I just came back from moderating a discussion at the W2 Culture + Media House focusing on the diversity of tactics used by social movements.
This came in the wake of the February 13 anti-Olympic protest in downtown Vancouver, where several activists used direct-action "black bloc" tactics.
They donned black hoods, face masks, and smashed the windows of the Bay and the Toronto-Dominion bank near the corner of Georgia and Granville streets in Vancouver.
The two speakers, Harsha Walia and Derrick O'Keefe, have both been involved in Vancouver social movements for many years. For those who didn't see the live discussion streamed on Straight.com or Rabble.ca, I'll provide a summary of some key points.
O'Keefe began by expressing concerns about protesters hiding behind masks, suggesting that this presents opportunities for police to act as agents provocateur. He also said that the best direct action tactics are done in a transparent way that educate the public about the stupidity of a law.
He cited the example of African-American civil-rights protesters sitting at a lunch counter and being arrested because the law forbid them from eating in that area. He also highlighted the example of French farmer Jose Bove`s protests against McDonald`s.
O`Keefe said that these types of direct actions involve a willingness to be arrested and to face legal consequences to advance the goal of mobilizing the public.
Walia said she didn't use black bloc tactics herself on February 13, but she praised the people who acted in this way. She said that some of the anonymous, black-clad protesters are the same activists who use other tactics and who are at the front lines of helping the poor and disenfranchised.
Walia praised their courage and said that using masks can be justified in an era of increasing police surveillance, noting that the Zapatistas use masks in Mexico. She also said these tactics help build mass movements.
One of her key points was that they "create room" for other protests to be more effective, because they seem quite reasonable in comparison. She cited the anarchist tent city in the Downtown Eastside as one example, which she said is being supported by some of the same people who used black bloc methods on February 13. She also mentioned the February 14 women`s march in the Downtown Eastside as another protest that was more effective after the previous day's demonstration. The Valentine's Day march was designed to draw attention to missing and murdered women across the country.
Walia also said the black bloc protest was planned well in advance and she questioned why the mainstream media did not address the significance of the attack on the Hudson's Bay Company (now known as Hbc).
Hbc owns the Bay as well as Zellers, Fields, and Home Outfitters. In 2008, a New York-based private-equity firm, NRDC Equity Partners, bought Hbc, which is outfitting Canadian athletes at the 2010 Olympics.
Walia claimed that direct action seems to be the only way to get the media to focus on corporations such as the Hbc and the Royal Bank, which are both financial sponsors of the Vancouver Olympics organizing committee.
Walia noted that the Hudson`s Bay Company has been a symbol of colonial oppression for centuries, and it was no coincidence that its window was targeted on February 13.
(The Hudson`s Bay Company received a royal charter in 1670 and is integrally linked with the rise of the fur trade and the history of Canada.)
One audience member, Eric Doherty, went up to the microphone to say he thought it was good to have this type of discussion. Doherty, who opposes the Gateway Program, said he attended the February 13 protest, but his group left after the first window was shattered.
With an amused grin, he suggested that the protesters smashed the wrong target at the Bay. He said that the display with an Indian sweater made in China would have been a much more appropriate window for the black bloc protesters to attack. (Nobody criticized his remark.) Instead, black bloc activists threw a Province news box and chairs at a window display that featured television screens on February 13.
Another speaker in the audience, Harjap Grewal, pointed out that Bhagat Singh and others used much more extreme tactics in the Indian independence movement, and that this actually helped more moderate leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi, succeed in the end.
Walia received the loudest applause from people in the crowd who supported Black bloc tactics. Nobody at the forum spoke in favour of Vancouver hosting the Olympics.